Image: P-51 Mustang moments before Reno crash
Tim O'Brien  /  Grass Valley Union via AP
A P-51 Mustang is shown right before crashing at the Reno air races on Friday. Investigators are looking at this and other images that show the aircraft's tail missing a key piece.
NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 9/18/2011 4:58:38 AM ET 2011-09-18T08:58:38

The death toll rose to nine Saturday in an air race crash in Reno as investigators determined that several spectators were killed on impact as the 1940s-model plane appeared to lose a piece of its tail before slamming like a missile into a crowded tarmac.

Moments earlier, thousands had arched their necks skyward and watched the planes speed by just a few hundred feet off the ground before some noticed a strange gurgling engine noise from above. Seconds later, the P-51 Mustang dubbed the Galloping Ghost pitched oddly upward, twirled and took an immediate nosedive into a section of white box seats.

Story: Death toll rises in Reno air show crash

The plane, flown by a 74-year-old veteran racer and Hollywood stunt pilot, disintegrated in a ball of dust, debris and bodies as screams of "Oh my God!" spread through the crowd.

National Transportation Safety Board officials were on the scene Saturday to determine what caused Jimmy Leeward to lose control of the plane, and they were looking at amateur video clips that appeared to show a small piece of the aircraft falling to the ground before the crash. Witnesses who looked at photos of the part said it appeared to be an "elevator trim tab," which helps pilots keep control of the aircraft.

Video apparently taken from the stands and posted on YouTube showed a plane crashing nose-down at the show after several other planes raced by in the air.

Reno police also provided a GPS mapping system to help investigators recreate the crash scene.

Investigators said they also recovered part of the tail section, where the tab is located.

Story: Initial report on deadly W.Va. crash due in days

A tour near the site offered to journalists Saturday evening revealed debris spread in a fan-shape over more than an acre around a crater roughly 3 feet deep and as much as 8 feet across. Based on the crater's location, it appears the P-51 Mustang went straight down in the first few rows of VIP box seats, or about 65 feet in front of the leading edge of the grandstand.

Yellow crime tape surrounded the scene and spectator seats remained askew.

Among the dead were the pilot and eight spectators. Officials said 69 people were treated at hospitals, including 36 who have been released and 31 who remain there. Nine were in critical condition late Saturday.

Among the dead identified by the Washoe County, Nev., medical examiner was spectator Greg Morcom, 47, of Washington state. He was pronounced dead at the scene of the crash, said TV station KOMO of Seattle.

Among other spectators Michael Wogan, 22, of Phoenix, perished at the scene and his father, Bill Wogan, lost his right eye, some fingers on his right hand, suffered over 100 fractures to his face, and remains in critical condition at a Reno hospital, according the The Arizona Republic.

The names of the other seven fatalities were not released.

Slideshow: Plane crashes at Reno air races (on this page)

Doctors who treated the injured said it was among the most severe situations they had ever seen because of the large number of people, including at least two children younger than 18 who are not among those in critical condition.

Injuries included major head injuries, facial trauma and limb injuries, including amputations, said Dr. Myron Gomes, chief trauma surgeon at Renown Regional Medical Center.

Could have been worse
Despite the large number of dead and injured, witnesses and people familiar with the race say the toll could have been much worse had the plane gone down in the larger crowd area of the stands. The plane crashed in a section of box seats that was located in front of the grandstand area where most people sat.

Some credit the pilot with preventing the crash from being far more deadly by avoiding the grandstand section with a last-minute climb, although it's impossible at this point to know his thinking as he was confronted with the disaster and had just seconds to respond.

Video: Reno crash witness: 'Plane was headed right for us'

Witnesses described a horrible scene after the plane struck the crowd and sent up a brown cloud of dust billowing in the wind. When it cleared moments later, motionless bodies lay strewn across the ground, some clumped together, while others stumbled around bloodied and shocked.

Ambulances rushed to the scene, and officials said fans did an amazing job in tending to the injured. Just that morning, the 25 emergency workers at the air show had done a drill for such a large-scale emergency like this.

The crash marked the first time spectators had been killed since the races began 47 years ago in Reno. Twenty pilots including Leeward have died in that time, race officials said.

It is the only air race of its kind in the United States. Planes at the yearly event fly wingtip-to-wingtip as low as 50 feet off the ground at speeds sometimes surpassing 500 mph. Pilots follow an oval path around pylons, with distances and speeds depending on the class of aircraft.

The disaster prompted renewed calls for race organizers to consider ending the event because of the dangers. Officials said they would look at everything as they work to understand what happened.

Another crash, on Saturday, came at an airshow in Martinsburg, West Virginia, when post-World War II plane, a T-28, crashed and burst into flames. The pilot was killed.

In Reno, the Mustang that disintegrated into the crowd had minor crashes almost exactly 40 years ago after its engine failed. According to two websites that track P-51s that are still flying, it made a belly landing away from the Reno airport. The NTSB report on the Sept. 18, 1970, incident says the engine failed during an air race and it crash landed short of the runway.

The Associated Press and NBC News contributed to this report.

Video: Tail piece suspected in crash

  1. Transcript of: Tail piece suspected in crash

    LESTER HOLT, co-host: It happened yesterday afternoon in front of thousands of people when a vintage World War II fighter plane plunged from the sky into the main grandstand packed with people. It was part of an air race . Here's a picture of the plane, a P-51 Mustang , moments before impact. There's another photo that experts have looked at that suggest perhaps what went wrong. It was being flown by this man, a veteran Hollywood stunt pilot, but it's obviously something went out of control. NBC 's George Lewis is in Reno . He's got the latest on the deadly crash. George , good morning.

    GEORGE LEWIS reporting: Good morning, Lester . A go team from the National Transportation Safety Board is headed to Reno this morning to begin investigating the causes of this tragedy that took the life of the pilot and at least two others on the ground and sent more than 50 others to the hospital. The moment of the crash was captured on video. The camera picks up other planes racing by the stands at low altitude and then one aircraft plunges into the ground near the end of the stands. Organizers of the Reno Air Race called it a mass casualty situation as the aircraft showered debris on the crowd.

    Unidentified Man #1: Everyone started saying uh-oh, uh-oh, uh-oh. He went down, down, down, down, down, straight down and exploded.

    Unidentified Woman: We saw everything. The plane just splattered.

    LEWIS: In the chaotic aftermath of the crash, emergency responders summoned every ambulance they could to rush the injured to hospitals. The plane in question, a restored World War II vintage P-51 Mustang known as " The Galloping Ghost ." It's unknown at this time what caused the accident.

    Mr. MIKE HOUGHTON (President, National Championship Air Race): Every race pilot understands the risks. They are perhaps the best pilots in the entire world.

    LEWIS: The pilot, longtime air racer Jimmy Leeward , 74 years old in an interview Thursday morning. He sounded confident about getting through the preliminary heats of the race and into the finals.

    Mr. JIMMY LEEWARD: We're as fast as anybody in the field and -- or maybe even a little faster. But to start with, we really didn't want to show our hand until about Saturday or Sunday. We've be playing poker since last Monday. And so it's ready to -- we're ready to show a couple more cards. So we'll see on Friday what happens.

    LEWIS: What happened was horrendous. It's unknown whether Leeward was trying to take evasive action to avoid the crowd.

    Mr. HOUGHTON: If it was in Jimmy 's power, he would've done everything he possibly could.

    LEWIS: But should a pilot that old have been at the controls of a high-performance plane this close to a large crowd of people?

    Mr. HOUGHTON: All of his medical records and everything were up to date, spot on, and Jimmy was a very experienced and talented, qualified pilot.

    Unidentified Man #2: Gentlemen, you look good. Gentlemen, you've got a race.

    LEWIS: The big air race in Reno has been compared to NASCAR . As many as 225,000 turn out for the thrill of watching the pilots pushing their planes to the limit. Now at one point local hospitals here were running short of blood. The Southwest Airlines flight we were on last night was held up in Las Vegas for a while so that more blood supplies could be loaded. Lester :

Interactive: Reno air race crash

Photos: Reno air race crash

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  1. In this combined image, a P-51 Mustang airplane flies upside down and then nosedives right before crashing at the Reno air race on Friday, Sept. 16, in Reno, Nev. The plane plunged into the stands in what one official described as a "mass casualty situation." At least 10 people, including the pilot, were killed and dozens injured in the violent crash. (Tim O'Brien / Grass Valley Union via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. The World War II-era fighter plane nose-dives just over the crowd, moments before impact at the Reno National Championship Air Races. (Courtesy Garret Woodman) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. The airplane crashes into the edge of the grandstands during the popular air race creating a horrific scene strewn with smoking debris. (Ward Howes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. The plane breaks up upon impact, scattering debris into the crowd on the tarmac. (Ward Howes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A crowd gathers around debris after the crash while ambulances and emergency personnel rush to the scene. (Tim O'Brien / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Medics help injured bystanders out of a helicopter into Renown Medical Center following the plane crash. (Liz Margerum / The Reno Gazette-Journal via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Debris from the plane is scattered at the Stead airport. (Andy Barron / The Reno Gazette-Journal via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Bystanders embrace after watching the horror unfold. Witnesses said the plane spiraled suddenly out of control and appeared to disintegrate upon impact. (Cathleen Allison / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Long-time Reno Air Race pilot Jimmy Leeward with his P51 Mustang on Sept. 15, 2010. The plane that crashed into a box seat area at the front of the grandstand was piloted by Leeward who was killed in the crash. (Marilyn Newton / The Reno Gazette-Journal via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Two NTSB officials look at wreckage from Jimmy Leeward's plane, Sunday, Sept. 18. Officials say ten people died. (/National Traffic Safety Board via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Patient Ed Larson gestures during a new conference at a hospital in Reno, Nev., Sunday, Sept. 18 about the how the plane crash happened in front of him. (Paul Sakuma / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A model plane lies among candles at a memorial near the entrance of an airport in Reno, Nev., Monday, Sept. 19, where the Reno Air Races were held. (Paul Sakuma / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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